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A Response to “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman

A good friend forwarded me the article Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” by Carl Trueman. I thought his comments deserved a response from someone who has adopted the practice of Lent for the past several decades…though it was not a part of my original church tradition.

“When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.” Wow. Nothing like putting the reader on the defensive in the opening statement. As a career pastor, and instructor of church history at Phoenix Seminary, I find this personally offensive. Now, because I practice Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need to prove that I’m not poorly instructed, that I do have a theology, and that I am a part of my own history.

(Why does believer-to-believer dialogue have to take this kind of shape? Is this kind? Is it anything like accurate? Or are blogs without incendiary remarks like these simply too boring to read? A subject for another time…)

Or, Trueman goes on to say, maybe I’m just a worldly, superficial consumer. Or I’m just “trying to look cool”. Or I’m “carnal”. Or that I’ll just “appropriate anything that catches my fancy”. And, clearly, I am “eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires.” Why does he assume an embrace of Ash Wednesday can’t also be an embrace of the wider riches of a liturgical tradition? For me to adopt a rhythm that I believe helps shape my soul – whether it’s Ash Wednesday, attending Sunday School, or a daily Bible-reading regimen, does it have to be reduced to “an eclectic grab bag” of spirituality?

It seems that for Trueman, to be Presbyterian, you have to stay Presbyterian, and you dare not learn from anyone else’s practices.Trueman states that “Old School Presbyterianism is a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder…the Anglicans.” Plunder – that’s a pejorative word, is it not? We shouldn’t plunder because “an appropriate rich and reformed sacramentalism” renders Lent “irrrelevant”. So, we should just stick with Presbyterian Sundays, and not add a special Wednesday form of worship? Does Presbyterian worship render my quiet time irrelevant, too? In what way is it edifying to pit one act of worship against another? (I guess the Presbyterians are saying “once-saved-in-your-tradition, always-saved-in-your-tradition”…perseverance of the worship?)

What I can’t figure out is this: Countless contemporary Evangelicals long for a richer experience of worship because of the bankrupt nature of the drivel that passes for thoughtful worship today. I have to believe that Trueman wishes better for them as well. So, if they explore some of the practices of liturgical traditions, why jump on them like it’s a bad thing? The tradition I was saved in – dispensational fundamentalism – left me with a bare cupboard. Can I not explore the broader traditions in search for something more?

Some other allusions Trueman makes: Lent-followers say it should be normative for all Christians (I’ve never met such an animal – cite a quote here?); Christians developed the church calendar to control peoples’ lives (maybe some, but certainly not all, or even most – and give me examples, please); All traditions have unbiblical forms of worship (maybe some, but most are extrabiblical, not unbiblical – examples?); That practicing Lent in a congregations is an objectionable “imposition” (don’t we “impose” a host of practices on our people every Sunday, including bad music and bad sermons?!?).

The grand issue I take with in Trueman’s article is the notion that certain traditions of our faith are not mine to practice — that, if I’m a Protestant, I certainly shouldn’t do a Catholic or Orthodox thing. Or that, if I’m a Presbyterian, I shouldn’t do an Anglican or Baptist thing. I find that sort of parochial attitude somewhere between mystifying and pathetic. The Christian tradition is my tradition. It’s my family. And I refuse to play Hatfields-and-McCoys when it comes to my practices.

Okay … some points of wholehearted agreement:

“The reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything.” Agreed.This is why I’ve always believed that contemporary Christianity will inevitably seek out practices, both old and new, with more substance. So let them explore, and don’t call their character and theology into question for trying out and even adopting things along the way.

“If your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.” Agreed. This is what I eventually did. I spent years trying to usher contemporary churches, void of heritage, back into their greater, catholic (small-c) heritage. An admirable pursuit I still believe, but very tough sledding. Eventually, I embraced the classical Lutheran tradition (which now needs a dose of contemporary Evangelicalism’s energy and passion). I think Trueman is okay with me now, that I’m “all in” — but before then, I because I was prone to only borrow idea from other traditions, my character and theology would certainly have been impugned.   

“Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is” considered a good time to offer a generalized reprimand to one’s broader spiritual family, because some of us have been blessed by the appropriation of edifying elements from our worship heritage. This, while priggishly espousing one’s own styles as the plumb line or orthodoxy and depth? I fail to see how this is edifying.

– Bill Hartley

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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Discipleship, Worship

 

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Our Need for a Full Gospel (Not a Holey One)

ImageAt our Ash Wednesday service earlier this week, our Vicar challenged us to “fill the hole in our gospel” this Lenten season.

Now, he made it clear that THE gospel has no holes. THE gospel, found in the life of Jesus and the pages of the New* Testament, is perfect, complete and wonderful.

But OUR gospel … the one that we practice … is often incomplete. Insight into these holes was given by the Old Testament passage Micah 6:6-8:

 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

In other words, shall I be over-the-top in my religious expression? The bigger the personal religious sacrifice, the greater the pleasure of God, right?

 “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do, love and walk. These aren’t “don’ts” these are “dos”. What good works the Lord requires of us are not activities of denying ourselves, but of blessing others.

The New Testament reading from the Ash Wednesday service, James 2:1-9, also brought clarity to this truth. Here are some excerpts:

Image“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place”, while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there”, or, “Sit down at my feet”, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man … If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Virtually all of my friends are rich. Most everyone who attends my church is rich. In the example James uses above, at least the sinful man is speaking with the poor person! We have sterilized our church environments so thoroughly that the poor feel unwelcome, and we feel no pang of guilt that this is true. God has chosen the poor … but we have not.

We do have a “hole in our gospel.” We do pretty well parsing our theological words and proclaiming our creeds. But James goes on to tell us that our beliefs, without accompanying works, are dead beliefs (Js. 2:17,26), and that real religion involves not only personal holiness, but an active life of serving the helpless and afflicted (Js. 1:27).

In short … I don’t need to stop eating sugar, as much as I need to start loving my poor neighbor. Not a Lent of not-doing, but of doing. I need do the full gospel, not a holey one. I believe that’s the Lent the Lord would have of me.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in Lent

 

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If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

It was over a decade of being a Christian before anyone told me about Lent – the longstanding tradition of cordoning off the 40 weekdays prior to Easter Sunday as a time of focused mortification of our sin.

Imposition cartoonTo this day, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent have become important to my spiritual rhythms. From the imposition of the ashes to “Black Saturday”, this season more than any of the others seems genuine, honest, and practical … where some serious spiritual work gets done.

Still, every year, there’s an old reflex within me that comes from my early days as a believer. A voice from my Christian past whispers to me, “Isn’t this stupid? Why wallow in your sin? It’s been paid for and forgiven … why focus on it? Is this just an old Medieval ploy by the church to try to make me feel guilty, so it can manipulate me?” 

(I know I’m not alone in harboring some of these thoughts. We celebrated Ash Wednesday at the independent Evangelical church where I recently served as pastor. The first time we imposed ashes caused at least one member of our congregation to leave. For her, it was just too morbid, too negative, too … “Catholic”.)

guilty dogsYes, there are some unhealthy Lenten practices out there, spawned by unhealthy Lenten theologies. Some turn Lent into a self-help season, or a weight-loss program. Others attempt to overcome sinful habits by their own power, which is futile. Some, believing God is mad at them for their sin, use the season to beat themselves up, thereby beating God to the punch. Still others act like angry dog owners, grabbing their spiritual lives by the scruff of the neck, and sticking their noses in the doo-doo of their sin, believing that, if we really see and smell how awful our lives are, surely we’ll stop making such messes in the future.

But, as David says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3).  I don’t need a church calendar season to promote my sin-awareness (though some litanies help me take stock of some areas that have gone unattended, which is helpful).

Ps 103-12

So … should I go to the Ash Wednesday service tonight? Is there a way to enter into this classical family tradition in a healthy way? If my sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, why should it be reapplied to my forehead?

Yes, I’m going. And I’m entering into Lent. More on why as our journey continues…

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Posted by on March 5, 2014 in Lent

 

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